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Texas inmates paid $2 an hour to move COVID-19 victims' bodies

Texas grapples with surge of COVID-19
Texas grapples with surge of COVID-19 cases 06:00

Amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, Texas' El Paso County is paying prison inmates $2 an hour to move the bodies of deceased victims of the disease. While prison labor is a common practice across the U.S., the reliance on inmates to handle the task of moving the corpses of COVID-19 victims is raising questions about the ethics of such work.

The county has nine inmates who are working to move the bodies of coronavirus victims, according to Chris Acosta, public affairs director at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. She described them as "low-level offenders" and said they are "provided full PPE by the morgue/hospital."

"The work is 100% voluntary," she added. "It's great that these individuals are stepping up and volunteering to assist a community in dire need of help right now."

El Paso County has about 34,000 active COVID-19 cases, with more than 1,100 people in hospitals, according to local health data. Since the pandemic began spreading widely in March, the county has recorded 769 deaths due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

To be sure, prison labor isn't unusual — prisons rely on inmates to perform jobs for little or no pay — but the context of relying on inmates to perform risky work sparked concerns about their treatment during a surge in COVID-19 cases in Texas.

"They've been doing this tough work since Monday, before El Paso increased to 10 mobile morgues. I cry for El Paso," wrote Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, a policy think tank, on Twitter.

In recent years, prisoners have gone on strike to protest work conditions and low pay. While the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, it includes one exception: People who are "duly convicted" of a crime. Because of that exception, prisoners can be paid nothing for their labor — and in fact, there are five states, including Texas, where regular prison jobs are unpaid.

The average wage for prisoners for jobs that aren't performed for the prison ranges from 14 cents to 63 cents an hour, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.

The inmates may not be doing the work for much longer, as the county has requested help from the National Guard to move the bodies, Acosta said. If that happens, the inmates will stop, she said.

According to the Texas Tribune, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in El Paso has jumped tenfold since the beginning of September, and the county has 10 mobile morgues to hold bodies.

Meanwhile, the county's businesses began reopening Friday, less than 24 hours after a court of appeals quashed a county judge's shutdown order as the city deals with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. On Saturday, the city of El Paso reported 1,512 new COVID-19 cases and 15 additional deaths.

Texas hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 as state reaches 1 million confirmed cases 05:03
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